“An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them.“ (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.22)
Intoxication brings temporary feelings of bliss, followed by unpleasant side effects. Sometimes the short bursts of good feelings are deemed palatable enough to endure the long lasting negative effects. After all, nothing else seems to bring escape from the rigors of material life, so if there is even a brief bit of relief, then the action is good enough to take up. There is one discipline, however, which brings natural highs, elongated feelings of bliss without any of the negative consequences. Not only are the unpalatable conditions removed, but at the time of death, the time when the individual’s consciousness is measured by higher authorities, the provided reward is unmatched in its splendor.
Why is intoxication harmful? Why is it considered one of the four primary sinful activities by followers of Vedic traditions? Supporters of intoxication will argue that their indulgences in adult beverage consumption and recreational drug use aren’t doing any harm to anyone. They are just trying to have fun after all, so why should anyone else raise objections? There is some validity in this argument, especially as it pertains to sense pleasures. If you take two groups of people, with one taking to ordinary sense gratification, and the other taking to intoxication, there really isn’t much of a difference between the overall effects of the two activities. Each side is simply looking for pleasure in the end, so the nature of how that pleasure is sought shouldn’t really be a cause of concern.
But even on the platform of sense gratification, intoxication brings many unwanted and unintended side effects. Inebriation from excessive alcohol intake has too many negative side effects to count. First, there is the loss of motor skills, the lowering of inhibitions, and unpleasantries relating to health. A drunk person is more apt to vomit in places other than a bathroom. They are more likely to get into fisticuffs without cause, hurl insults at others, and even overeat. Drunk driving is also a major concern, as a motor vehicle can turn into a deadly weapon when operated improperly. Driving requires attentiveness and quick reaction time, two things which are greatly diminished in the intoxicated individual. There are also issues relating to overdoses. One can actually die from alcohol poisoning or from taking too much cocaine, heroin, or other narcotic.
It’s interesting to observe how these unpleasant issues are dealt with. There is the classic case of the drunk who gets so intoxicated that he swears he will never drink again. It takes just one night of constant vomiting or one day of an intense hangover to make a person question the soundness of getting drunk. Nevertheless, such promises are mostly empty, for the same person will likely take to intoxication again the next time they are in the mood for a good time or when they are feeling the pressures of life.
Even with all this established, credible, and readily perceptible evidence about the harmful effects of intoxication, the remedies for such problems hardly ever tackle the root issue. For example, even though drunk driving is such a major problem, the common solutions put forth to stop it deal only with driving, while neglecting drinking altogether. A designated driver is deemed the best solution for those wanting to drink without having to drive later on. Additionally, moderation and certain rules of precedence pertaining to wine and beer drinking are suggested so as to minimize illness. The humor lies in the fact that the suggestions are given to those who are contemplating intoxication, which, by definition, brings about a loss of rationality and cognitive thought. This means that any suggestions given to a sober person immediately get forgotten or pushed back to the dormant part of the consciousness once said person actually becomes intoxicated. You can suggest that a designated driver be assigned, but once a person is totally “bombed”, they won’t be able to think clearly in any way. Therefore there is nothing holding them back from stepping behind the wheel of a car.
Another way to tackle the problem of intoxication is to find other activities, those engagements which bring natural highs. These activities can include watching television, attending sporting events, reading books, etc. These “natural” options are generally ignored because the sense gratification they provide is subpar compared to the high achieved from intoxication. Getting drunk equates to an escape from the senses, a forgetfulness of reality. The precarious condition of material life can be summed up in two activities: hankering and lamenting. The mind is always either wanting something or distressing over the things which it doesn’t have. The inebriated state is one of ignorance wherein hankering and lamenting are minimized.
For these reasons, intoxication continues to be a popular form of sense escape. There is one set of activities, however, which brings tremendous natural highs, feelings of bliss which far exceed those felt from intoxication. Not only are these feelings of joy superior, but there are absolutely zero negative side effects associated. The most ecstatic emotions can only be brought on by acts of devotion dedicated to the Supreme Lord. This discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti brings spiritual pleasures, those feelings which don’t fade out and which don’t have negative consequences. Therefore sense pleasures automatically become subordinate to spiritual pleasures. Since bhakti-yoga is the only discipline which aims to acquire spiritual pleasures, it thus becomes the topmost discipline, the only set of activities worth adopting.
“The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Govinda, the one who enlivens the senses of everyone by His personal bodily rays, resides in His transcendental abode, called Goloka. Yet He is present in every nook and corner of His creation by expansion of happy spiritual rays, equal in power to His personal potency of bliss.” (Brahma-samhita, 5.37)
Just as there is a thin line between love and hate, the difference that separates those who take to intoxication and those who take to bhakti is actually quite small. Both parties are fed up with the pressures of material life, the incessant pain brought on by the senses. Both groups are looking for an escape, but one side takes the proper path towards freedom, while the other further binds themselves in the perpetual cycle of misery. The life of the inebriated person certainly burns faster, as their opportunities for realizing the highest knowledge and subsequent pleasure rapidly dwindle. Bhaktas go in the opposite direction, using their precious time to slowly but surely find eternal spiritual life. The devotee aims to please the senses of the Supreme Lord by regularly chanting His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Krishna and Rama are names for God which are not sectarian in any way. Though they may be well known to the people of the Indian subcontinent, Krishna and Rama are simply Sanskrit words which describe the transcendental features of the Supreme Lord.
God most certainly does exist, even if we fail to acknowledge His presence and supremacy. Matter is dull; its only quality is that of inertia. In order for this inertia to be broken, the hand of spirit is required. The power to move matter belongs to the individual spirit souls, or purushas, and it also belongs to the greatest purusha, the Supreme Spirit. No matter what a scientist may say, nothing can occur in this world without the hand of spirit. Life comes from life, and the origin of life can be found in the spiritual world, a place where dull matter does not exist.
“Those miscreants who are grossly foolish, lowest among mankind, whose knowledge is stolen by illusion, and who partake of the atheistic nature of demons, do not surrender unto Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.15)
Bhakti is so nice that it even benefits the atheist. For example, let’s say that a person is a staunch believer in the power of matter and chemicals. They don’t believe in God and they think that once life is over, everything becomes finished. This belief still doesn’t take away from their natural desire to enjoy, their daily search for happiness and peace. The natural inclination of the non-believer is to take to sense gratification at all costs. Yet as we see from intoxication, which represents a temporary escape from the senses, there are many harmful side effects. Since the intensity of the negative effects is greater than the magnitude of the positive effects, we can say that intoxication ultimately leads to a worse off condition for the seeker of sense gratification. Since the aim of the karmi, the fruitive worker not caring about a higher authority, is to reach a positive condition, a general progression in the search for a panacea of happiness, intoxication must be deemed an overall negative activity.
If the same atheist were to take to bhakti by regularly chanting God’s name, hearing stories about Him, and offering obeisances to His deity, there would be many positive side effects. Just by refraining from intoxication, gambling, illicit sex life, and meat eating, the non-devotee going through the motions of spiritual life stays away from the most harmful activities, those engagements which lead to the most intense harmful side effects in this life and the next. In addition, bhakti is a much more peaceful engagement, one consisting of singing, dancing, reading, writing, and eating. One who practices bhakti perfectly no longer has to lament or hanker; life becomes pretty simple. In this streamlined way of living, the strong influence of the senses is quelled, and thus the initial objective of pleasure is actually achieved.
The wise view intoxication and other acts of pure sense gratification as maya, or illusion. When something is illusory, it is taken to be something that it is not. Intoxication represents one of the greatest illusions because it carries the allure of happiness, when in reality it only leads to misery. Bhakti, on the other hand, is completely lacking in deceit. It is so simple, pure, and straightforward that even the non-believers are benefitted by it. The same can’t be said of intoxication or any other act of sense gratification. One who is not a believer in drinking, smoking, or eating meat surely is never benefitted by dedicating their lives to such activities.
Since bhakti proves to be the most beneficial engagement, surely its founder, the person who instituted it, must be very intelligent. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that bhakti comes from God, whose original form is that of Lord Krishna. Indeed, bhakti’s effectiveness comes from its target of interest, the satisfaction of the senses of the Lord. If the atheist takes to bhakti and is benefitted as a result, surely the creator of the system would have to be credited for the successful outcome. Since the system comes from Krishna, the atheist would have to acknowledge the Lord’s greatness and intelligence. Since Krishna gave us bhakti, surely His other prescriptions would have to be equally as valid. Krishna’s most succinct set of instructions can be found in the famous Bhagavad-gita, also known as the Song of God.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
Krishna’s final instruction in the Gita is that Arjuna, His cousin and disciple, should simply surrender unto and dedicate all his activities to God. This will ensure happiness, relief from all sinful reactions, and ascension to the imperishable realm in the afterlife. In this way, bhakti not only represents a natural high in terms of stimulation of the spiritual senses, but it represents a true elevation in terms of where it takes the spirit soul. The secret to the success of bhakti lies in its dealings with the spirit soul. The soul of an individual has a constitutional makeup, a natural inclination towards a specific set of activities. These activities have a beneficiary, an ultimate object of worship. In the realm of the material world, the natural loving propensity is misdirected to the sense objects. In spiritual activities, acts of devotion, the loving propensity is directed at God. This is the natural disposition of the liberated soul. It is a lover of God through and through.
“A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification, who lives free from desires, who has given up all sense of proprietorship and is devoid of false ego—he alone can attain real peace.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.71)
Only bhakti brings the natural high of association with Krishna. No other discipline, theistic or atheistic, can secure the same reward. Taking up devotional service can solve any and all problems. At the time of death, the individual whose mind is completely fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord will immediately return to the spiritual realm, a place wherefrom they never have to return. This brings liberation from the cycle of birth and death, which also means that one will never have to be a slave to the senses again. The natural high of association with Krishna, as is experienced by the liberated souls residing in the spiritual world, brings all the glory and happiness without any of the worry.
On one side you have activities which bring some pleasure along with many negative effects. On the other side you have activities which bring tremendous pleasures without any of the unwanted consequences. A sober person, one who can objectively weigh the two options, will surely choose the latter. The claims of the bhaktas are not false promises that only bear fruit in the afterlife. Everyone is looking for pleasure after all, so those who are already faithfully engaged in the service of Krishna would not take to such activity if it didn’t bring them happiness. “The proof is in the pudding” as they say, so one should at least adopt the chanting process and see what effect it has.